Tony Hall: the creative economy

,  23 November 2012

Tony Hall, Director General of the BBC, has been Chief Executive of BBC News and the Royal Opera House. He was also the founding Chairman of Creative & Cultural Skills. He spoke about his career path and the importance of developing skills in the arts.

Starting out with a passion for music

"I think it began when I was a kid, with a pile of 78s that my grandfather owned. He worked at Cammell Laird's in Birkenhead, and would spend his money on old-fashioned gramophone records.

"So I listened to little bits of opera in three-minute bursts, and that began my love of music.

"I think that’s where I suddenly thought that the arts generally, but music in particular – and then opera, and then theatre – were the things that I was really going to develop a passion for."

Getting on in the arts

"I was very restless – I still am – so I kept looking for new things to go and do. I started off working in Belfast, but I wanted to go and work in other, different places.

"I went and worked in radio, and then I wanted to go and work in television. On some occasions, I actually went and took the opposite of promotions. I took demotions to go and find out new things, and to learn new things.

"I think that’s actually quite important, that sense of ‘try new things’. Keep trying new things all the time."

The importance of mentors

"I was quite lucky. I had a mentor, someone who was an absolutely great television producer.

"He and I plotted things together, we plotted new things that we’d do. And then there was an enormous revolution at the BBC when John Birt arrived, and I ended up running the whole of news and current affairs.

"I had mentors I could go and talk to: ‘I have this big issue. What do I do with it? How do I plan this?'"

“I had help from a few people – two or three people, who I was lucky to have. People I could go and talk to and discuss what we were doing with, and say, ‘I have this big issue. What do I do with it? How do I plan this?’

"It's important to listen to other people and the experiences they had, because it can really fold back into your own experience. You can learn a huge amount from that.

"So, what’s the lesson? For me, it’s being restless, I suppose. Keep looking for new things, but also keep trying to put yourself in places where you’re not quite sure you can do it."

Developing skills in the arts

“It’s all about teamwork. To put something on the stage over there each night requires an enormous amount of team activity.

"Not just by the people who appear on the stage and get the applause at the end, but by an orchestra, and by everyone who’s working backstage, by people who were marketing the show – everybody. It’s all about working as a team.

“If someone comes to me and says, ‘I’m not too sure about going to university, or going off and doing something else’ – I’d say get that qualification, because I think it’s absolutely vital.

"On the other hand, what really matters are the ideas, the drive, the energy and the spark.

"You can’t say one course is the only course, because there are people with an amazing amount to give who might not have been to university.

"Look for as much experience as you can get in a variety of organisations. Be skilled. Get yourself skills that might help you when this recession comes to an end, as it will, and think very much of the future.

"It’s the advice I’m giving to my own children at the moment. My daughter’s just finished university and is finding the job market extremely difficult. Get skills. It’s very, very important.

"Recessions don’t last forever, so be ready for the upturn when it comes, as indeed it will come."

Growing the creative and cultural economy

“I think a downturn is a chance to look to the future and say: 'what sort of economy do we want to have?'

"Financial services are still going to be very key to the British economy. but maybe not in the way that they’ve been up to now. Manufacturing is a lot bigger and a lot more important than I think people have realised, and that’s important too. 

"Be skilled. Get yourself skills that might help you, and think very much of the future."

"But the creative and cultural economy is absolutely something which, on past trends, is really going to grow in the future, and is going to be key to our long-term economic future.

"I think the third thing is: now is the time. The government have said they will put money into apprentices, so that businesses who are finding it hard to go through this downturn can – at no cost to them – have apprentices working with them, skilling people for their recovery.”


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